Grail Character Syndrome:
How To Be The Center Of Attention And Yet Be A Total Bore


Every now and then, you run into characters who are kind of like the Holy Grail. They have wonderous properties or qualities that make them coveted and sought out by others, but they don't really do anything interesting of their own accord. Their choices and deliberate actions are so few and far between that they could easily be replaced with various inanimate objects (EG, powerful weapons, advanced gadgets, sentimental heirlooms, property deeds, contraband goods, and so on) and the story could easily play out in much the same way (aside, perhaps, from the removal of a romantic subplot).

Most of these characters are created by novices who seem not to have yet developed a good sense of what makes a protagonist genuinely interesting to watch. However, even seasoned writers create them now and then. Oftentimes, it seems creators of all experience levels get so caught up in how important, powerful, attractive, mysterious, or tragic their characters are that they miss the fact that their characters are actually pretty boring people who actually don't do much.

Does your own protagonist have this problem? You can figure this out with a simple question. Ask yourself and think: does your protagonist's presence primarily affect the plot because...

A. Your protagonist makes actual choices and takes actions that catalyze change and alter the status quo?
B. Your protagonist has some special property (EG, power, title, attractiveness, etc.) that make people want to take control of the protagonist or make the protagonist their ally/spouse?

(Note: Hobson's choices - EG, making a "choice" where the only other alternative is death or something similarly unpleasant - do not count.)

If you answered A, you probably don't have this problem with your protagonist - go you! But if you answered B, there's a good chance you do. If this is indeed the case, don't panic! Instead, stop and think about what happens to your character in the course of the story, and how you might make your character proactive and dynamic rather than passive and reactive. Here are a few examples to give you some ideas:

Example 1: Amber knows that there's something different about her. Strange things seem to happen around her at certain times, and nobody she knows seems to have any explanation. Written as being passive/reactive, Amber might just muddle through life until a mysterious man comes along and informs her that she's really some sort of fae. But written as proactive/dynamic, Amber might instead comb libraries and Internet resources to find out if she can find some explanation - which eventually leads her to a mysterious man who finally tells her what she is.

Example 2: Cassyn has rare powers that need training. Passive/reactive Cassyn will be contacted by a master who offers training. Cassyn refuses, at least until the evil overlord takes Cassyn's family hostage and there's no other way to save them short of joining the evil overlord's side. Proactive/dynamic Cassyn may have been looking out for a master for some time now, even if there were none to be found, or working to try and get somewhere that one could be found. (The master might also find Cassyn because the evil overlord taking some appararently random family prisoner is suspicious enough to investigate further.)

Example 3: Megan finds out that she's destined to save a magical world. Passive/reactive Megan will essentially end up shuffled around by other characters from this world who tell her what she needs to know and do and/or get shuffled around by people trying to keep the bad guys from getting their hands on her, and this is how it goes until she finally does the one thing she needs to do to save the world. Proactive/dynamic Megan will poke around and ask questions to get the answers she needs, and while she might need someone to watch her back now and then, she takes a more active role in choosing whether and where to go.

REMEMBER! Characters who normally make their own choices and take actions of their own volitions are not grail characters simply if people want to take control of them a few times or if they end up being sought out by others, nor are they worse characters for it! (Even the first two "passive" examples aren't necessarily bad if the characters end up being mostly proactive in other ways.) But conversely, characters who make one or two choices in stories where they spend 98% of their time not making choices are still grail characters. It's all about which way the scales tip.

Also, your protagonist's efforts need not succeed all the time, as failures make a story more suspenseful and interesting. What matters is that your protagonist keeps trying until something actually works. (Though there's nothing wrong with a character giving up temporarily when everything seems hopeless, either.)

Look at how the plot and your protagonist relate to each other. Is the plot moving forward mostly because of your character's own choices and actions, or is it moving forward more because other people are taking drastic measures to take control of your character or something your character has? If it's the second, consider making your character more proactive. Otherwise, you'll probably end up with a boring character, even if your character is some exceptionally talented something or has the most heartbreaking backstory you can come up with. And when you make your character proactive and dynamic, you'll probably find that you don't even need to resort to making your character the absolute most talented, tragic, or special to keep people interested. Ordinary characters who try are more interesting than unusual characters who don't.


Also, check out:

Alexis Feynman's Guide To Writing Proactive Characters
Reasons Your Character Might Be Boring
Things We Need More In Female Characters & Their Stories
So You Want To Have A Powerful Or Talented Character Who Probably Won't Be Perceived As A Mary Sue?
The Case For Killing The "Blank Slate" Character
On Giving Your Characters Flaws & Weaknesses

Basic Tips To Create Better Characters With Tragic & Traumatic Backstories
Building Better Backstories - Tips & Ideas
Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon
On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents
Why "Purity" Is An Overrated Character Trait
Simple Tips To Avoid Making Your Character A Damsel In Distress

Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story



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